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Intro to Strength Training - Back to the Basics

Exercising can seem like an arduous task. There are an overwhelming number of tools and pieces of equipment that can be used in your workout and it can seem intimidating to those just starting out (and even to seasoned exercisers).

Knowledge is power, so becoming familiar with the tools, training principles, and proper techniques will give you confidence going into your workouts whether you're working out with your personal trainer or on your own.

This blog post will introduce you to exercise equipment, princciples, and techniques in order to familiarize you with the proper way to use your body and the equipment in the gym for a safe, effective workout.

Strength Training

Strength training is moving your body and using free weights and weighted apparatuses while following a structured program to improve muscular strength and endurance.

Benefits of strength training:

⁃ The reduction or prevention of osteoporosis (brittle bones)

⁃ Assistance with weight management

⁃ An increase in metabolism

⁃ Improvement in the ability to perform everyday tasks

⁃ Strengthen muscles, bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments

Before beginning strength training, there are some things that can assist with making you as comfortable and safe as possible.

Tips before you begin strength training:

⁃ Wear comfortable clothing that stretches, and closed-toe shoes

⁃ Warm up before beginning

⁃ Perform each exercise slowly, paying attention to proper form

⁃ Use a spotter to help you with heavier lifts

⁃ Have adequate hydration handy throughout your workout

⁃ Inhale during the easy part of your lift and exhale during the difficult part of your lift

The Components of a Strength Workout

1. The Warm Up

Before we get into depth about strength training we must first stress the importance of warming up.

A proper warm up should last at least 5-10 minutes (enough to begin a light sweat) and be performed before strenuous activity in order to increase blood flow and body temperature, allowing for more flexibility and in turn reducing the risk of injury.

Types of warm up:

Aerobics - Aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging or jumping rope are great for warming the body up before strength training.

Active or Dynamic stretching - Dynamic stretching, also known as Active stretching, can be combined with aerobic exercise or performed by itself to warm up.

Active Stretching Examples:

Arm circles

To perform arm circles, hold arms straight out at shoulder height. Create small arm circles. Move arms in one direction for 10-20 seconds. Reverse the direction of your arm circles and perform for the same time period.

Torso Twists

To perform twists, spread feet wider than shoulder width, bend knees slightly. Turn torso from side to side. Perform twists for about 20-30 seconds.

Leg swings

To perform leg swings, hold on to a stable object. Raise leg forward and backwards stabilizing all other parts of your body. Perform for 30 seconds. Switch legs and perform leg swings with other leg.

High knees

High knees are an excellent warm up activity for the lower extremities. Alternate driving knees up to ceiling. Perform at any level of intensity. 20 seconds to one minute in duration.

2. Training Volume Variables

Volume = Sets + Repetitions

Your specific strength goal will determine your total volume for each exercise. Exercises are completed by doing a certain number of repetitions of that exercise for a certain number of sets.

One repetition is one complete exercise movement. For example, in the biceps curl, curling the arm up and then back to its starting position is one complete repetition. A set is a group of reps. 10 repetitions of arm curls can equal one set.

There are many combinations of repetitions and sets that are proven effective in strength training.

Begin with Light Weights.

Perform 1 or 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions for each exercise, and slowly progress to 3 sets or more.


Once you get into a routine and begin to feel stronger, you should gradually increase the weight your lifting, or the amount of repetitions your performing. Generally, increased weight causes increase in muscle strength, and higher repetitions of same weight increases muscular endurance.

3. Rest & Recovery

Rest 30-60 seconds in between sets to help prevent muscle fatigue. The more intense the workout, the more rest in between sets you may need. Rest one to two days between workouts to allow muscles to recover.

Rest a day or two in between workouts. Resting gives your muscles time to recover and replenish energy stores before your next workout. Eat properly. Be aware of what you are consuming and how your body uses it as fuel. Proteins repair damaged cells so it is good to consume regularly when working out. The body uses carbohydrates as fuel. The body burns fat as fuel for low intensity sustained workouts, or when carbohydrates are depleted. Make sure to hydrate often.

4. Frequency of Training

If your primary goal is to build strength, the optimal beginning routine would likely be three times per week. Two times a week is the minimum recommended by the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

If an increase in muscle mass is your goal, more frequent repetitions and more frequent workouts are recommended.

You can work all your muscle groups during a workout, performing 1 or 2 sets of each exercise to start, and working your way up to more sets or heavier weights as the exercises get easier.

Or, you can focus on certain muscle groups on specific days.

A Three Day Split Example:

Weekly weight training schedule

Monday: Chest, shoulders, triceps, and core

• dumbbell chest press

• dumbbell shoulder press

• dumbbell triceps extension

• plank

Wednesday: Back, biceps, and core

• dumbbell single-arm rows

• bicep curl

• resistance band pull apart

• plank

Friday: Legs and core

• lunges

• squats

• calf raises

• plank

As you become more comfortable with weight training, you can mix up the exercises you do for each muscle group.

Training With Care:

The primary concern when beginning training is safety. Proper technique is key to reducing the chance of injury. When the body fatigues it is more prone to make mistakes, so rest when necessary. Listen to your body. It will take time to build muscular endurance, but eventually it will be easier to maintain form throughout the workout.

Training Styles

Next, we will get into types of strength training and the equipment used.

Ways to strength train include, but are not limited to:

  • Circuit training

  • Weight lifting

  • Resistance bands

  • Body weight training

Circuit Training:

Moving from one exercise to another with little rest in between.

Circuit training can be beneficial in order to increase heart health along with building muscular endurance.

Circuit training can be especially beneficial for people with high blood pressure and diabetes.

Because of the lack of rest in between sets, the continuing pace can burn more active calories than working out with more rest between sets.

Many forms of circuit training alternate between upper body and lower body movements which allows recovery between exercises but keeps the heart rate elevated.

Weight Lifting:

Weight lifting is a very common form of strength training that uses weighted objects to develop strength and size of skeletal muscle.

The equipment used during strength training include, but are not limited to:

Free Weights

  • Barbells

  • Dumbbells

  • Kettlebells

  • Sand Bags


  • Cable Machines

  • Fixed/Plate Loaded Machines

  • Resistance Bands

Free Weights vs. Machine Exercises:

Free weights are weights not attached to an apparatus allowing the user to move without restriction.

Machine weights are an exercise machine that uses gravity as the primary source of resistance. Machines, when used, place resistance directly onto the targeted muscles.

Benefits of Free Weights:

When using free weights you must balance or stabilize the muscle while moving it, which is more relative to every day movement.

Benefits of Fixed & Plate Loaded Machines:

Because machine weights are built to move in a specific direction, good form is almost guaranteed. Using machines are great for isolating the targeted muscle.

My Opinion:

I personally like to use machine weights after I perform an exercise that worked a general area to completely exhaust a particular muscle. For example, machine leg curls immediately after lunges.

Cable Cross Machine, like we have at FIT Carrboro

Benefit of Cable Machines:

Cable machines are simple cables and pulleys arranged to allow for functional training in all sorts of directions. Cable machines can be manipulated to simulate functional tasks such as pulling and pushing at various angles.


Pair of rubberized hex dumbbells

Dumbbells are weights held in hands that can be lifted and maneuvered to increase strength.

Dumbbells are more maneuverable than a machine or a barbell and are great for targeting specific areas such as the biceps, in the biceps curl.

Single cast iron kettlebell


Kettlebells are weighted balls with handles that can be swung, lifted, or pushed in order to cause resistance.

Many kettlebell exercises work several muscle groups at once, which makes them effective for a full-body workout.

Push, Pull, Leg Exercises

One way to strength train is to break up the body into three parts and rotate from one area to the next.

The three segments of the body that cover most muscles can be divided into push exercises, pull exercises, and leg exercises. Let’s review some push, pull, and leg exercises and how they should be properly performed.

Push Exercises

Push exercises, like the chest press, are most exercises that involve the chest, anterior deltoids (front of shoulders) and triceps muscles.

Barbell Bench Press / Chest Press:

The chest press is an important exercise that involves pushing objects away from the body.

This exercise targets muscles in the chest (pectorals major), shoulders (anterior deltoid) and the back of the arms (triceps brachii).

To perform the chest press exercise, lie flat on a bench. Grab and hold a barbell above your chest. Slowly lower the barbell to your chest. As the bar is lowered, tuck your elbows close to your torso to protect your shoulders. Touch the bar to your chest to maximize range of motion. Press the barbell upward to starting position. Be careful not to lock your elbows.

Pectorals major & minor muscles

Triceps Muscle Exercises:

To perform the triceps extensions exercise, stand up with one foot in front of the other. Find a stable surface to hold on to. Grab a dumbbell with your free hand. Bend the elbow with the weight at a 90 degree angle. Extend arm backwards without moving other body parts. Return dumbbell back to starting position.

To perform the triceps seated extension exercise, sit on a bench with a dumbbell over your head in both hands. Keep your core braced and bend your elbows behind you until the dumbbell lowers toward your upper back. Extend your arms to straighten them and bring the dumbbell back up.

Pull Exercises

Pull exercises such as rows involve your trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, spinal erectors, posterior deltoids (back of shoulders), and biceps.

Single Arm Dumbbell Row:

Place your right knee on the end of a sturdy bench and place your right hand palm-down on the bench for balance. With your back parallel to the ground, reach down and grab a dumbbell with your left hand. Your left foot should be on the ground to stabilize the body.

Pull the dumbbell up to your chest. Keep your elbow as close to your torso as possible. Slowly straighten your arm to the starting position. Finish 1 set, then switch the dumbbell to your other hand. Perform 1 set with your left knee and left hand supporting on the bench.

Biceps Curls:

Exercise can be performed seated or standing. Hold dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing away from your body. Curl the dumbbells up, bringing your forearms toward your shoulders by bending your elbows, but keeping them stationary at your sides. Reverse the curl to the starting position.

Leg Exercises

The major muscles to work in the lower body include the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, hip flexors, and the muscles of the feet and ankles.


Works the quads. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Take a step forward slightly larger than normal walking stride. Lower your knee to the floor as far as your physical ability will allow. Push your feet into the floor and stand up. Perform same routine with other leg.


Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hinge you hips back as if going to Sit down and slowly bend your knees, as far as your physical ability will allow. Use a bench to assist with form, depth, and to manage knee stress. Push into the floor and straighten legs as you stand up. Dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell can be used to increase resistance.

Calf Raise:

Stand on the edge of a step with your feet parallel to each other. Slowly raise your heels a few inches above the step and hold for a few seconds. Slowly lower your heels below the edge of the step and hold for a few seconds. You should feel a stretch in your calves. You can add resistance by holding a light dumbbell in each hand down by your sides.

Resistance Bands

Resistance bands-elastic bands that provide different levels of resistance. Resistance bands have been shown to provide as many strength benefits as weight lifting. Unlike weights, resistance bands do not rely on gravity to provide resistance which allows for a more functional workout. Resistance bands are good for consistently strengthening the muscles throughout their range of motion.

Pull Apart:

Chest Press:


Twist / Chop:

In conclusion, it is beneficial to strength train regularly in order to manage weight, strengthen bones and muscles, prevent or reduce the prevalence of metabolic disease and improve activities of daily living.

There are many ways to strength train including weight lifting, circuit training, body weight exercises and band exercises.

Whatever method you choose, make sure to use proper form, breathing techniques and the correct weight to maximize effectiveness.

References: beginners guide to weight training

Fitness: The Complete Guide Dr. Frederick Haffield International Sports Science Association

National Academy of Sports Medicine

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